Jason and Hanna Markert of Park Rapids started to homeschool all three of their daughters this year after seeing a dangerous decline in their grades, behavior and health.
According to Kinsey, 17; Kamryn, 14; and Kendyl, 10, school bullying played a role - including cyber threats, verbal abuse and physical and sexual assault by other students - while interventions by school staff were less than helpful.
"A faculty member assaulted one of my children, leaving marks on her," said Hannah. "A faculty member called my child a liar and a hazard to other children. A faculty member offered to find her another school so (he or she) does not have to deal with myself, my husband or my child anymore."
During the 2017-18 school year, both Kinsey and Kamryn began suffering from anxiety attacks. Kamryn attempted suicide multiple times, and recently completed six months of treatment away from home for post-traumatic stress disorder.
"The attitude change in the kids was my first trigger," said Hanna. "They were starting to argue with the parents. They were starting to not want to do homework, arguing because they didn't want to go to school. They continuously had stomach aches, headaches. They would come home and completely shut down. They would refuse to do their homework. I'm like, that is not them. So, what's going on?"
Little by little, starting with Kinsey, the girls started to open up about it.
Threats on Kinsey
Kinsey was in second grade when the family settled in Park Rapids. She recalls having trouble fitting in by third grade. During her middle school years, Kinsey said, "I got into the wrong crowd" - but one that made her feel cool.
Things got tougher in high school, she said. On the last day of her freshman year, another student threatened on Snapchat to beat her up if she didn't quit talking to a certain friend, and warned, "if you're lucky, you'll live."
The family got a harassment restraining order (HRO) against the other girl - but "the school did absolutely nothing to keep the two separated," Hanna said.
Meanwhile, Kinsey's grades plunged. Previously an A and B student, she started failing classes.
Hanna said school administrators were not open to helping Kinsey make up the credits.
"We ended up pulling her so she could graduate," said Hanna. They signed up their daughter for Minnesota Connections Academy, an online homeschooling curriculum based in St. Paul.
The senior worked extra hard last summer and throughout her senior year to graduate on time.
"She's back up to all As and Bs," Hanna added.
Things are better now, Kinsey said, with only a few days of course work to complete for her diploma and a job as a certified nursing assistant giving her a chance to get out of the house. "I love my job," she said.
Meanwhile, the Markerts noticed Kamryn becoming distant and withdrawn.
During a routine check of their children's phones and social media accounts, the parents noticed threats. "Threats of killing, throwing under a bus, from other students," said Hanna. "That's when it started getting really severe. We noticed that she was cutting...She went through suicide attempts. I just got her back. Six months gone in rehabilitation, residential treatment."
Kamryn confirmed that she made multiple, serious attempts to die.
"I felt like I didn't need to live," she said. "Nobody liked me. I felt like I wasn't worth it, that there wasn't anything to live for. But then I realized, after every attempt I made, that I have family, and that my family is worth it."
Kamryn said the trouble started in seventh grade, when she started to have panic attacks in school, which staff members mistook for seizures. Afterward, students taunted Kamryn by pretending to have seizures or panic attacks. When she ignored them, their tactics became physical.
Students shoved her. One boy tried inappropriately touching her, "so I beat him up with the baby-doll," she said, referring to a toy she had borrowed from Kendyl for a class project. "I was like, 'I'm standing up for myself. I am done with this junk.'"
Another day, Kamryn said, the same boy put her in a choke hold. In return, she gave him a black eye. When school staff heard about it, they sent Kamryn to in-school suspension, where she got in trouble again for using her phone to tell her mom about it.
In spite of staff assurances that the students would be kept apart, the boy continued to follow Kamryn and call her names. Kamryn recorded one incident on her phone but, Hanna said, when shown the evidence, school staff only dinged Kamryn for using her phone again.
To this day, Kamryn refuses to go near her former school. "Just thinking about it kind of scares me," she said, "but I know I am safe where I am, and if I'm with people."
Kamryn said treatment taught her better coping skills than self-harm, and she discovered that she isn't "the only one in the world that has these issues."
Volunteering a word of wisdom, Kamryn said, "Stay strong. You can get through it."
Last fall, the only member of the Markert family going to the public school was Kendyl.
"I was on the monkeybars," she said, when another student "pushed me and made me fall off, and made me hit my head, and I had a big lump on the back of my head."
Kendyl also recalled being hit in the face with a rock on the playground, being shoved into the person ahead of her in line, and seeing her friends harassed by her antagonists. "It just began to get worse," she said.
Hanna said she and Jason noticed: "Friday hits; she's all excited, happy she's home. But then, on Sundays, she's yelling at us, arguing with us. She doesn't want to go to bed. She's crying, just being a belligerent child."
One day, school staff called and said Kendyl was feeling unwell.
"I was crying in class and didn't tell the teacher or anybody," said Kendyl. "I just wanted to go home."
Back at home, Hanna asked Kendyl what was bothering her, and learned that other fourth graders had threatened to harm the family dog and burn their house down.
Hanna said she always instructed her children to tell an adult if something happens, but Kendyl said she didn't trust her teachers "because they won't do anything about it."
In January, Kendyl and some other students were walking to class when someone tripped Kendyl. Another student pushed her and she ran into a door, getting a bump on the head and bending her glasses.
Because she incorrectly said she was pushed into a wall, school staff concluded that Kendyl was lying - though, Hanna said, other students admitted Kendyl was tripped and pushed.
"Doesn't matter to me what it was, it shouldn't have happened," said Hanna. "So, I said no, we're done."
Kinsey misses singing in choir. Kamryn misses playing basketball. Kendyl will not be able to participate in school gymnastics when she reaches seventh grade.
Hanna said she feels her children have been robbed.
"I think, if the school would start rethinking a lot of their policies," she said, "they might have a better outcome."
Regarding bullying issues, she said school staff "need to follow the handbook. If they believe those are vague rules in there, they need to come up with new ones."
She added, "They need to dig a little deeper. They need to start listening to the students."
"They've got a plateful right now," Hanna admitted, "but I do think there is potential for change."